Nobody can deny that the Mini is a great car which is more than deserving of its iconic status. But it’s a bit, well, common, isn’t it? With more than five million of the little blighters made over more than four decades, there are just too many of them about.
However, if you love the Mini’s agility, nippiness, club and specialist support plus the ease with which it can be maintained with a penknife and some tweezers, there is a solution – a Riley Elf or Wolseley Hornet. Drive one of these and it’s just like piloting a Mini. So on the menu are direct steering, fantastic agility, more whine than a dentist’s drill and a more comfortable ride than you’d ever imagine. Cabin space is the same as for the Mini, and there’s more boot space – but not much more. The great driving experience is backed up by easy ownership; parts support is superb (although body panels are a problem) and DIY maintenance is easy too.
So if you’re looking for an unusual classic that’s cheap to buy and run, a hoot to drive even if it’s not the fastest car around, and with a touch of luxury into the bargain, take a closer look at the Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet.
Which one to buy?
The Elf is plusher than the Hornet but less rare, so values for both models are much the same. However, the Elf and Hornet are a lot rarer than you might think, with just 30,912 Rileys built and 28,455 Wolseleys built. It’s reckoned that just over 500 Elfs have survived and fewer than 500 Hornets, so you’ll have to look hard for a good one. However, many were bought as occasional runabouts, have been garaged all their lives and have spent more time being cleaned than driven.
Most owners prize originality very highly, so butchered interiors and aftermarket wheels can seriously reduce the value of an otherwise good car. Factory-spec mechanicals are generally preferred too, but cars with sympathetic upgrades can be highly desirable – especially if they’re period modifications.
Performance and specs
Riley Elf/Wolseley Hornet MkII/MkIII
Engine 998cc, four-cylinder
Power 38bhp @ 5250rpm
Torque 52lb ft @ 2700rpm
Top speed 77mph
Fuel consumption 35mpg
Gearbox Four-speed manual
Dimensions and weight
• The Elf and Hornet can dissolve alarmingly, so inspect all panelwork starting with the panels in front of the doors; these rot and are difficult to repair. There's a mud trap behind the front wing, the bottom door hinge box also traps mud and feel behind the wing (via the wheelarch) to ensure the triangulated hinge panel is intact. Restoration is involved, and can get quite expensive.
• Another awkward area to repair is the inner scuttle panel, where it meets the inner wing behind the wheelarch. Next check the front subframe mountings on the floorpan, as this frequently gives problems because of stress cracks and rust. Inner sills dissolve readily, as do floorpans, the area under the rear seat and all four shock absorber mounts. Finish by checking around all windows and lift the seals if you can; corrosion often lurks underneath.
• Many of the body panels are shared with the Mini, such as the doors, front wings, roof, front footwells and bulkhead. But bespoke panels such as the rear wings, bonnet and rear floorpans are much harder to find, if not impossible.
• The A-series engine is tough, but can appear healthy right up to the point it goes bang. Expect oil leaks, look for blue exhaust smoke and expect oil pressure of 40psi when cruising. The engine's stabiliser mounting bar bushes disintegrate, from being soaked in leaked engine oil; any excess movement will be obvious. Timing chain rattle is usual (duplex assemblies cure this) while poor running is probably down to a soaked ignition system; the distributor is on the front of the engine and gets soaked by rainwater.
• Most Elfs and Hornets got a four-speed manual gearbox, but from October 1967 a three-speed auto was optional. These are pretty reliable, although most early cars had to have their gearboxes rebuilt because of weak syncromesh and poor gear selection. From 1964 a stronger gearbox was fitted; from 1968 syncromesh was fitted on first gear.
• The rubber-cone suspension is reliable, with repairs easy and cheap. From 1964 Hydrolastic suspension was fitted, parts for which are scarce and expensive. Converting to rubber-cone is possible, but involved and costly.
• The rear suspension is easily knocked out of alignment by kerbing the wheels leading to the radius arms being bent. Similarly the front wheels get kerbed easily, leading to the tie rods getting bent. Repairs are cheap and easy though.
• Seats sag (high-quality interior trim is available from Newton Commercial) but rubber floor mats can be harder to source. Check that the dashboard gauges are all working correctly.
• There’s a lot more exterior trim on an Elf or Hornet than a Mini, so check it’s all there and in good condition. Most spares can be sourced second-hand or even new.
• The battery's location in the boot can cause problems; if it's not properly secured there can be fireworks. The bulkhead-mounted fusebox can give trouble with poor connections, as can the bullet connectors fitted to early cars.
Oct 1961: The Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet debut with an 848cc A-Series engine. The Elf has a slightly higher specification.
Apr 1962: The front wings now feature seams like the Mini’s, plus over-riders are fitted front and rear.
Sep 1962: The seats are now trimmed in leather instead of leather cloth.
Jan 1963: The MkII Elf and Hornet arrive, with a 998cc engine, stronger brakes and a better heater.
Sep 1964: Hydrolastic suspension is now fitted instead of the previous rubber cone system. There’s also now a diaphragm spring clutch.
Oct 1966: The Elf and Hornet MkIII are introduced, with concealed door hinges, winding windows, revised door handles inside and out plus redesigned door trims.
Oct 1967: A three-speed automatic gearbox is now available.
Aug 1968: There’s now synchromesh on all four gears.
Aug 1969: The final cars are made.
Owners clubs, websites and forums
Summary and prices
Due to the rarity of Elf and Hornet models, mint condition examples are highly sought after, and can command prices of up to and above £8000, although usable cars can be picked up for £5000. Projects, varying from full restoration projects to cars needing a little TLC range from £1000-£2500.
Words: Richard Dredge